That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It

Matthew 15:1-20
1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,
2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”
3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
4For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’
5But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,”
6he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
10And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand:
11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
12Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.
14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
15But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.”
16And he said, “Are you also still without understanding?
17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?
18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.
19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.
20These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

My grandsons can watch the same movie or cartoon over and over again. For me, it’s a good time to catch a nap. Apparently, for the preschooler, there’s comfort in knowing what’s coming. Surprises and plot twists aren’t that much fun for them. Knowing what’s coming gives them a sense of control.

Jesus faces a similar attitude in the voices of the Pharisees. They are completely dependent upon their traditions, for those man-made laws bring controllable order to their lives. Seeing someone live outside of those controls is a problem for them and Jesus faces those “traditions” head on without apology. When the Pharisees comes to Jesus, all the way from Jerusalem (a 70 mile walk!) it is interesting that they would choose to speak about something as trivial as hand washing. But that is where they decide to hang their proverbial hat in the moment.

The Pharisees are not speaking to Jesus about hygiene here. The hand washing mentioned is the ritual hand cleansing that was written into law by the Jewish leadership at a time when life was uncertain. They hadn’t heard from God for long time and were making up the faith as they went along. In the book of Leviticus, God teaches the priests about ritual hand washing before they performed their role in the Temple. By the time we get to Jesus’ day, that hand washing had become a rule for everyone. This was not God’s idea but man’s. As such, Jesus pays it no attention and the Pharisees believe they have a bone to pick with Jesus. As per usual, Jesus completely turns the tables on the Pharisees and speaks to the larger issue at hand – the traditions of man taking precedence over the commands of God. Jesus then brings up the whole concept of allowing a person to turn their money over to the Temple rather than doing what the Word of God commands and taking care of their aging parents. Jesus won’t even speak to the Pharisees about hand washing because it is so inconsequential. We become ridiculous when we attempt to control life through man-made laws that have no bearing on our real lives.
“Practices readily become habits. Habits, in turn, develop into traditions. Traditions can all too easily become laws—laws that God never gave and that can threaten to encroach upon and undermine matters on which God has actually spoken.” They assume that their oral tradition is valid. Jesus assumes that their oral tradition is leading them into hypocrisy and grave error.”
Gibbs, J. A. (2010). Matthew 11:2–20:34 (p. 776). Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Jesus then takes the time to teach His Disciples the truth about God’s Kingdom. It doesn’t matter what goes into your mouth. That can’t make you unclean. It’s all about what comes out of your mouth matter for in that what is truly going on inside of you is made known. We’ve all seen it (and probably experienced it for ourselves.) Words have tremendous power to hurt, bully, destroy, and reveal. They also have the power to sooth, comfort, instruction, and build up. I had a friend tell me years ago that it takes 15 “atta boys” to make up for one kick in the butt. He was right.

So you can wash your hands all day long – it won’t make you clean. Only Jesus has the power to make you clean and He doesn’t need the rules and traditions of man to make it happen!